Watch any game against the Royals that involves Shaun Marcum and you’re bound to hear Ryan Lefebvre mention at least a few dozen times that Marcum is from Excelsior Springs, Missouri. It’s like clockwork.
There’s a chance that this pattern could be repeated 30 or so times in 2013. The Royals are still likely to look for one more pitcher after trading for Ervin Santana and re-signing Jeremy Guthrie. Marcum, who’ll turn 31 next month, was a third round pick by Toronto in 2003, debuted in 2005 and has thrown 916.2 innings as a big leaguer, compiling a 3.76 ERA in the process. He’s shown pretty good control (2.8 BB/9) and that he can strike people out (7.3 K/9). In 2010 and 2011, he threw a combined 396 innings. For his career, he has a 112 ERA+.
He’s the kind of pitcher that would make an impact, especially on a team like the Royals. His track record of success would make him the favorite to start opening day.
Of course, there’s always a catch.
Marcum’s been overlooked during his career as a starter (pitching mostly in Toronto and Milwaukee can do that sometimes). As a result, he’s lacked the same buzz that Zack Greinke and Anibal Sanchez have had this offseason. He’s also flying under the radar due to questions about his durability lately. He missed the end of the 2008 season and all of 2009 after Tommy John surgery. When he came back in 2010, Toronto marched him out for 31 starts and 195.1 innings. He succeeded, going 13-8 with a 3.64 ERA and 1.147 WHIP.
In 2011, he had been traded to the Brewers for third base prospect Brett Lawrie. For Milwaukee, Marcum threw 200.2 innings and a 3.54 ERA. Through 13 starts in 2012, Marcum had a 3.39 ERA in 82.1 innings. He felt something tighten in his elbow and was placed on the disabled list. It wasn’t certain if he’d pitch again in 2012, however, his next start came on August 25 after he came off the DL. He was fortunate to avoid surgery, but that kind of injury track record does leave a black cloud over his performance and teams are understandably cautious.
After he’d returned to the rotation, Marcum made eight more starts and in 41.2 innings, had an ERA of 4.32. He threw less strikes (65% pre-DL, 61% post) and his line drive percentage went from 21% before the DL stint to 29% after. That’s part of another scary trend. Since having Tommy John surgery, Marcum’s line drive rates have gone from less than 18% from 2006 to 2008 to 18.3% in 2010, 20% in 2011 and 23.1% last year. At the same time, his ground ball rates have gone down. Usually, they’ll say that a pitcher coming off of Tommy John surgery will take a year to get back into the groove. Now, it’s been much longer than a year and his peripheral stats are still in decline.
Marcum’s never been a hard thrower. Before surgery, he was throwing in the upper-80s with his fastball. In 2010, his average fastball velocity was 87.1 mph and has decreased in each of the last two seasons since. He does have a wide array of pitches and doesn’t rely on just the fastball, and has thrown more of a cut fastball recently as well, a pitch that will give up some speed for movement anyway so it may not be a concern, but it’s worth noting.
Marcum’s not a safe bet, but when he’s healthy enough to be on the mound, he’s very good. Not an ace, but he could be the second guy on just about any team in the big leagues and for the Royals, that’s an arm in demand.
Last season with the Brewers, Marcum made $7.725 million. If he’d had a full season in 2012, he’d probably be in the discussion with Sanchez and Greinke as the key free agent starters on the market. With his one surgery already on record and his two month absence last year with elbow pain, I’m sure many teams will avoid a big investment. That can present an opportunity for the Royals to get Marcum into the fold on an incentive-laden deal where they could tack on an option year in case he stays healthy.
He’s not likely someone the Royals want to commit to long-term, though. There are too many questions, and as they get closer to arbitration years for other players in the lineup and the bullpen, they can’t be stuck with a big number in three years for Marcum if he’s hurt. This may be a “prove health” year for Marcum and it could get the Royals a discount. With the structure of Jeremy Guthrie’s contract (which pays him just $5 million this year), the Royals could afford something. If they non-tender Luke Hochevar, that’s $4-5 million off the payroll right there. In the end, the money shouldn’t be the issue if the Royals don’t sign Marcum. If they can’t get a trade worked out and he’s available, they should give him a shot.
And if they find that after the trade, they still have the space, he’s even more attractive as a rotation option. I’m sure he’d like to pitch closer to home – according to Jon Morosi, that may be the case. Someone alert Ryan Lefebvre.